Tony Ward: Expect Pat Lam to have something up his sleeve
Connacht can overcome pressure to deliver and repeat the perfect mix of containing and creating
Published 21/05/2016 | 02:30
It might sound like a sweeping statement, but the visit of Glasgow Warriors to the Sportsground for this Pro12 semi-final is the biggest game in the history of Connacht Rugby and I'll tell you why.
Turn the clock back a fortnight and I did not think Connacht, for all their quality and competitiveness over the course of the season, would have enough to get the better of, what is still for me, the most complete unit in the Pro 12 competition.
But they did and deservedly so. Of course they benefited from the reigning champions being reduced to 14 men but that massive win wasn't taken by way of Sila Puafisi's rush of blood. It was won on the back of a plan that was different in focus but designed to counter the strengths and ball handling potency of the opposition.
It reflected a humility appropriate to the occasion, to the elements but more than anything to the opposition. I guess at its most simplistic Pat Lam outsmarted Gregor Townsend on the day.
The worry for Lam and for Connacht is that the Warriors head coach comes from the same school of hard knocks. He knows that despite making all the right soundings in the build-up to that game the individual and collective focus just wasn't right.
With all the emphasis on the ball handling prowess of both teams, it was Lam who returned more efficiently to basics and I guess in a nutshell won the battle of the gain line.
Whether it was with or without the ball, particularly the latter, it was the home team bossing the collisions. Connacht were well worth their seven-point win and while the most tangible benefit was home comfort for today the real impact was psychological.
I want to be careful about my use of tense here for it is how John Muldoon and the troops perform this time out that will determine just how much of a watershed in the evolution that win was.
With winning comes expectation and it is in that respect today's Pro12 semi-final is so critical. The thoughts of a Murrayfield final and the fireworks would entail would be quickly extinguished with a damp squib today.
That is the real pressure and make no mistake the Warrior body language will be entirely different this time. The weather forecast looks like it could be along similar lines but there the comparison might end.
The visitors will be a lot more physical and pragmatic in approach for today is about winning whatever route that takes.
To borrow from the Sawdoctors 'To win just once' would be the making of Connacht. They have come too far this season to blow it now and yet because of the quality of the opposition anything but a top of the scale performance and it could be blown apart in 80 odd minutes this afternoon.
The Sportsground factor is also essential. For those of us of a different playing generation, the College Road venue was a nightmare. It was more closely associated with the adjacent New Cemetery on cold wet November days than anything else. Now it is heaving with atmosphere and unable to accommodate the numbers wanting to get in.
Connacht chief executive Willie Ruane can take a bow for his immediate dismissal of Thomond Park as an alternative venue for purely commercial reasons.
It was no more than I would have expected from an administration totally in touch with its roots.
But back to matters immediate. If both teams play to their maximum running potential then Glasgow are better equipped to win out but on the basis of what we witnessed when last they met, the balance between containing and creating was central to the final outcome.
Not that I would suggest Connacht should abandon the loaded laissez faire approach that has got them to this point. I have no doubt they will stay true to their core principles but with prudence attached.
So what can we expect? As Lam alluded to this week it is all about the process and keeping the opposition guessing.
"We refuse to be stereotyped." Both video analysts will have scrutinised the opposition to the nth degree. I don't expect a chess battle but do expect two beautiful minds in Townsend and Lam to have something special, something different up their respective sleeves.
In general terms the task for Lam is to reproduce what his players delivered a fortnight ago but with an even greater intensity and over a much more sustained period. To that add the possession game with which they are most comfortable and a repeat result is more than possible. But there is pressure on the home team and let us not pretend otherwise.
The real pressure is in having put themselves in this position - earning a home semi-final - to ruthlessly capitalise on that advantage now.
Secondly, and even a greater pressure again, is in winning that first piece of meaningful silverware. Making that big breakthrough is the real challenge and, while I have little doubt the Murrayfield final will look after itself, getting there would be one massive psychological step.
They are a smart team used to playing smart rugby but they are up against at least their equivalent in that key regard. Glasgow play much as did their head coach in his own playing time.
He was a free spirit and while the reigning champions clearly employ the type of structure essential to the modern game they also bow to the unorthodox, chiefly through a certain Leone Nakarawa.
He is to the Warriors what Bundee Aki has become in a very short time to Connacht. They ignite that adventurous fuse in others.
While Eoin McKeon in for Sean O'Brien is the only change to the starting XV for the home side, Townsend has been forced through injury (Alex Dunbar), through suspension (Sila Pufisi) and of necessity (Rob Harley, Ali Price and Lee Jones all demoted) to shake things up after a most uncharacteristic Glasgow like performance at the same venue.
With a third of the team changed, the message of dissatisfaction is clear.
And while there are juicy head-to-heads all over the park in two very attack-conscious line-ups it is ironically a negative tactic that could prove the difference.
Whichever side can slow speed of delivery at the breakdown and check forward momentum in the wider channels then the key building block will be in place. I say ironic because here we have the two most offensive minded teams in the competition and yet it is whichever side can negate the other the more effectively that may well possess the key to the Edinburgh final.
With heart and head I hope in tandem I'm going for Glasgow to perform but Connacht to prevail.